the choice 2000

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interview: mary matalin
photo of mary matalin

Matalin is currently a host of the CNN talk show "Crossfire" and served as political director of President Bush's 1992 re-election campaign, and as a staffer on his '88 presidential bid. She speaks about the role George W. Bush played in his father's campaign, his evolution into a "political warrior," and his relationship with his father.
Tell us the story of the first time you met George Bush, your first impression.

The first time I met the entire Bush family was right after the 1980 election. Then vice-president Bush--this is unheard-of--invited the minions, the little worker bees from the Republican National Committee, to his residence, and his whole family were there, and it was there that we met all those wonderful children. They were just a great family. It's very familial, and wonderful, and a good thing to do, and the kids were a lot of fun.

What George W. was then is what George W. is now. He's very gregarious, outgoing, extroverted, makes people feel comfortable; he's irreverent, he's funny. He's just fun to be around, he just makes people feel good--you just want to hang out with him.

You were there at the campaign in 1988. Can you recall, sort of the first time he walks through the door, the impressions of what the campaign thought he was going to be and what, in fact, it turns into?

The campaign in 1988, what the vice-president's son was doing there, he was then, remains today, the two of them closest of confidantes and sounding boards, and they trust each other explicitly, implicitly, and that's what he was doing there, to be eyes and ears for his father, and also to speak with the authority of his father. If we needed to get something back to the vice-president, we knew that he would be an honest broker.

He also in 1988 served a role that continues to be part of his persona. He was a morale builder, he brought people together. He was a troubleshooter. He made decisions. There was never any formal discussion about what his role was; he just is what he is.

Can you tell us any stories about specific things he did, on the road when you traveled with him?

My job in 1988 was to be in the primaries, very difficult primaries that season, and I had the very difficult mid-western states, and George W. Bush...would go with me through county after county after county in Michigan, for instance. [Michigan] is the very first convention that year, very first delegates chosen there, even before Iowa. And it was a very labyrinthine, complicated process, and about 5o people made the difference.

he had a disinterest in the Washington culture. I wouldn't have been surprised if he didn't run, and wasn't surprised that he did... He would go, drive to the hinterlands, hour after hour, to talk to three people, and he would not leave until they were persuaded to vote, by his encouragement, for his father.... He can speak, not just because of his relationship with his father, but, because of his whole demeanor, he speaks with great authority, and it was never questioned after that.

How did he get along with the people he met on the road and along the campaign trail?

He was very good at understanding what concerns people had, understanding what concerns the various coalitions had, and how to put it together and make people come to compromise, come to consensus. And he was also very good at motivating people. So this is a very big part of his job. His door was always open. His booted feet were always up on the desk. And anyone could and did come in and talk to him. The very important part of his role and something he did very well was to make what would have been feuding factions get along in support of what was always his No. 1 goal, to get his father elected.

You have described George W. Bush as a campaign warrior. What did you mean by that?

George W. Bush is, to me, a political warrior. He is, in a campaign setting, he is loyal, he is disciplined, he's focussed, he knows why he's there, and he's good-natured about that, and he just gets up and does his job every day. There's no back-stabbing, petty agendas, mind wandering, personal agendas. And that's the kind of people he surrounded himself with.

I think it's a lesson he learned from '92--'88 was a better campaign than '92. At the end of '92 there were some folks disloyal to his father, and I think that disturbed all of us, but you could see where it disturbed his son, in ways different from even the most loyal of aides. So when I say he was a campaign warrior, I meant that there are those people on campaigns who go down with the sinking ship and aren't just there in the good times, or stay there till the last dog dies, as we say.

What a lot of people have said is that if you want to get George W. in your face, you say something derogatory about his dad. What's that all about? Can you define that?

Well, he, the son, has said, often, as has the father, it's much more difficult for each of them, respectively, to see the other in the oppressive campaign than themselves. And when I said that George W. was a warrior, he never stopped fighting for his father...He never just rolled with the punches. Everything, every one was a gut punch. And that is not the way that he's been in his own campaigns. You know, it's like water off a duck's back.

But the president's the same way with the governor. It's much more difficult. They're a very tight, close family, and that father-son relationship is particularly close, and they both are pained--there's no other word for it--they're just pained to see the other criticized.

However, I think [George W.'s] seeing [his] father stupidly labeled as a wimp has been helpful in getting through the son, stupidly, absurdly being labeled a lightweight. He never internalized that. He scoffs at it and laughs at it. It was, I think, productive to have seen that kind of absurdity handled in a previous campaign.

He gets a lot of labels, as any candidate does running for office. One is that he's an emotional guy, his emotions have been close to the surface in different time periods, and lots of stories that are out there about that. Is he a hothead? And if he's a hothead, is that emotional level something that we want in our president?

I've never seen him be a hothead. I've never seen him be uncontrolled. I've never seen him in an emotional rage. He is emotional. He's sensitive. He's a sensitive person, without being a navel-gazer and a baby-boomer psycho-babbler. But he's very--he has, to use his words, he has a loving heart, and he's moved by families and children and things like that. It's a cross between being the son of a very sensitive set of parents and growing up in Midland--a confluence of events--his own relationship with Jesus. He is a sensitive, but not self-absorbed, person.

He sort of had the reputation as being the black sheep of the family...

... Let's say he was a late bloomer. He tried a lot of different things. A lot of people think that's the better way, the preferable way to go through life. The other kids were a tad more traditional, settled down earlier and what not. But the connotation of black sheep is a negative one... and I think he lived his life, not sadly or gropingly, but adventurously. He didn't miss anything he wanted to do. He wanted to be in baseball in a serious way, and he did. He wanted to do business. I mean, his early loss at Congress didn't set him back. Again, he's not a navel-gazer. He's a fighter, he's a doer. He moves on. He learns and he moves on.

What were the expectations put on him by his family?

I never saw expectations excessive to him or any of the children. This is one of the things most attractive--of the many attractive things about the Bush family, their normalcy. All of these children are beloved for their individualism, for what it is that's special about them. And then--in 2o years, I never saw, "Oh, George has the name, George is our future." There was none of that...Mrs. Bush, of course, is the epitome of motherhood, and she just gives each of these kids the room to be who they are. I never saw any excessive expectations put on any of them.

The loss, in '92. How did it affect George W?

I think actually for him personally going through and watching that loss made him understand the ramifications, the full ramifications of what it takes to run, to what it means to be in the arena, and it revalidated what is a family trait, which is, losing isn't the end of the world. There are things bigger than losing a political campaign, and there is something more meaningful than a dollar. That's the family, the love and the support.

Another allegation that's used against him is that he's not strong on policy. Does that matter, for a guy who's going to lead the greatest nation in the world?

Well, let's look at the history of our presidents. Those who have been policy junkies have been notoriously bad presidents. Scholars are increasingly just finding that critical to being a successful leader is the so-called emotional IQ, where you can communicate, persuade, build a consensus, make a compromise, you can understand people, you know how to draw them together. He can do all of that. He is not a policy--he doesn't not understand policy, he's just not the cocktail chatter, "Oh, look how much smarter I am than you." He thinks in big, visionary terms. He's the one who explained to me, over these miles and miles of traveling through Iowa and Michigan and all those states, how the markets work, how the macro-economy works, how the micro-economy works, how to run a business, how to--He thinks in those big terms, and he knows, he can see a project, he can see where he wants to go, and then, he knows how to stay focussed on getting there. And he also has the ability to draw the right people in, smart people, to whom he can delegate to get the nits and nats of it together.

You, in '96, I was told that you went on the air or something and basically anointed that George W. Bush was a guy to watch, that he was going to be a contender for the president. What is that story?

After 25 years, or however, doing this, at the national level you have a sense of what leadership is, what national leadership is, what heavy-duty executive abilities are. And I looked around at the landscape, and it wasn't just out of affection for this family, and him in particular...He just had it all. He has the charisma, he had the leadership abilities, he showed how to get elected, how to get reelected, how to unite the base with a very fractured party, then how to reach beyond the base, into non-traditional, Republican cohorts. The party was destined for perpetual minority status unless we were able to do that. So I looked at the one and only guy around the country from a state, not a little state but a big state, that had all the problems that the country has, and it just kind of presented--that presence presented itself as the future for the party.

But the process of how sort of the ball really started rolling, and the Republican governors. What took place?

Well, the Governor himself is really a 2oth century conservative. Long before he was even thinking about running, he said, "What do you think of compassionate conservatives?" He started explaining to me. And I said, "Well, that is exactly what we are." I mean, he had thought this through, he knows how he wants to govern. He saw a place different for conservative policies than the party was headed.

So he had the policy vision...and then Carl [Rove] started putting the blocks together. Then, Governor Bush has his own far-reaching network, his own governor network had seen him perform. There's nothing new in this business. They saw success in a state, in a big state with a lot of problems, on those issues that they're mostly concerned about: education, welfare, those kind of state issues that are cutting edge, and they saw his policies working in Texas, and they were drawn to that success. They were drawn to his electoral success and, as is always the case, people are just compelled by his charisma.

Let's talk about the primaries. From a political strategist point of view, what happened in South Carolina, what went right for the Bush campaign?

I'll tell you what Bush did... I saw him do it again in Michigan, and I've seen him do it repeatedly in the years that I've known him. He doesn't get off his game. You can't psyche him out. He knows who he is. I spoke to him on the day we [bombed in?] Michigan, and he said, "We have a strategy, we know why we're running, we know who we are, we're not going to point fingers. This campaign will not implode. We get up tomorrow and we keep fighting."

That is very different than what McCain did after South Carolina, throwing a hissy fit, going back on the bus, staying up all night whining--I'm not attacking McCain. I've just been in enough campaigns where, in the face of defeat, the thing starts unraveling. Bush did not, and will not, and has never, let that happen.

What makes him tick?

I love this trying to figure him out, in this age where everybody wants to tell you, all the time, about what makes them tick. His whole family is, they have an adversity to self-absorption. His grandmother was like that, his father's like that, and Mrs. Bush. None of them sit around saying, "Oh, me, me, me." So he doesn't--because he's not revelatory in that self-absorbed baby boom way, there lies the deepness of him. He cares about--and I say this from these endless conversations on the road--family, children, stability, home, love, very traditional things. And at the time we were riding around, I was this mid-thirties, career, kind of overly too ambitious, feminist, crazy person. And he didn't--without being negative about it--there's nothing more rewarding, as fulfilling, beautiful in life than having a solid, stable, loving relationship. And that's what--on a personal level, that's where it all comes home for him, and for the whole family.

From your point of view: main strengths, main weaknesses that he possesses in his ability to lead, to take on this unbelievable role of the President of the United States.

He is a leader for this time. I don't see any weaknesses. We need a man of his age, his vigor, his vision, his capacity not to get bogged down in all the minutiae, but to have a vision where education fits in, how the whole culture has to grow together, how we have to unite. He's a big picture guy at a time where we feel like we're losing control of ourselves, in the face of raging technology and a wisdom that's too slow. He's got the energy, and the charisma, and the compassion to pull it all together. And he wants--this is so cliche--but he wants to do something. He doesn't want to be somebody. He doesn't want to go live and hang out in Georgetown. He wants to do his job. He wants to do public service, and he wants to end up on the ranch, with his family.

When you were wandering around with him, did you ever look at him and sort of say, "Wow, this guy could be a really strong, impressive campaigner, leader at one point?" I mean, did he have that charisma? Did he have something that you looked at and said, "Oh my God, this is it?"

I never was in the presence of him where he wasn't the presence in the room, you know? It doesn't matter what business you're in, there's always a stand-out guy or woman in the room and that everybody's attracted to...And he was always like that, but he never really--He wanted, he had an interest in baseball, he had a disinterest in the Washington culture, if you will. So I wouldn't have been surprised if he didn't run, and wasn't surprised that he did, because he has all the gifts of a great public servant. And yes, you can see it in the way that you can see leadership in business leaders, or sports leaders. He's a natural-born leader.

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